Monday, September 20, 2010

Beyond Non-dualism - a Response to Ken Wilber's Evolutionary Spirituality

I hadn't been intending to post here for a while, but I recently came across Terry Patten's latest initiative, in cooperation with Ken Wilber's Integral Institute: a series of lectures and discussions available both live and for download on the internet entitled "Beyond Awakening: The Future of Spiritual Practice". It would be relatively easy to dismiss a fair amount of this sort of thing for obvious reasons, and I'd like to avoid those because they are just too obvious. Instead, I'd like to respond to some of Wilber's core arguments, particularly those he describes in the opening lecture in this series given just a few days ago. Unfortunately, there is as yet no transcript of this lecture, so I will have to paraphrase Wilber's comments, but I think I can do that without distorting them beyond their intent.

The central message of this entire series, and most of Wilber's recent work, is embodied in the phrase "evolutionary spirituality". The series seems intended to express and promote a movement that envisions spirituality as an evolutionary process that changes according to the needs of evolving cultural norms, and that literally creates a greater fullness as those norms become more and more inclusive of every aspect of this evolutionary process. This movement points to all kinds of precedents and teachings it might wish to align itself with, but its main inspiration and leading intellectual force is clearly Ken Wilber himself. So this lecture by Wilber is perhaps the best representation of its message, its views, and its thought process.

I don't wish to pick apart the whole of Wilber's views here, but to focus instead on his understanding of non-dualism as an evolutionary process, which seems central to the rationale behind his advocacy of an evolutionary approach to spirituality. There are some good points Wilber makes in this lecture on culture and its developmental history and conflicts, and I'm not opposed to the notion that religious and spiritual culture and its norms evolve and change over time, but I do think that Wilber's analysis is deeply flawed at both the core level of his understanding of non-dualism, and subsequently in his understanding of how the dualistic world operates.

This particular lecture of Wilber's is a relatively important one in that in it he tries to respond directly to the criticism of his attempts to associate non-dualism with an evolutionary process. I'm certainly not the first to point out that the realization of non-dual truth and reality doesn't "evolve" over time, or represent a cognitve level of development, even if non-dual teachings in the human world certainly do reflect the evolution of human culture and cognition. Wilber begins his defense of evolutionary non-dualism by pointing out that there is a traditional perspective on non-dualism which considers reality to be unchanging, beyond time and space, beyond all manifest dualities, and thus immune to any developmental process. And Wilber concedes that if this is true, then one can't equate non-dualism with any evolutionary process, because evolution clearly is something that occurs in the changing, dualistic world. However, Wilber suggests that within the non-dual traditions there is what he considers a "greater perspective" that is inclusive of the dualistic world, and which does not conceive of non-dualism as excluding dualism and its evolutionary process. He points to the Upanishadic formulation of "turiya", the fourth or "witnessing" state of consciousness (beyond the conventional three states of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep), and to the Buddhist teaching that nirvana (formlessness) and samsara (form) are the same, as a justification for his assertions that to associate non-dualism with dualistic evolutionary processes is not only a good idea, but represents a greater understanding of the inclusive nature of non-dualism.

In Wilber's view, the reason one can speak of an evolution in non-dualism is that while the pure, formless,  non-dual reality is never changing, the dualistic world is always evolving, and thus the "union" of the dual and the non-dual changes in respect to the "fullness" of what non-dualism includes. For this reason, Wilber considers that Buddha's nirvanic realization, although it was founded in the same non-dual reality as any other non-dual realizer, past or present, was limited in its "fullness" by the evolutionary state of the time and place he lived, and that realizers of later phases in human cultural evolution, representing more "inclusive" points of view, were therefore "fuller" in their realization of the non-dual. The integral level of cognitive development, in Wilber's view, therefore represents the first real stage of a truly inclusive non-dualism, because the integral level is the first developmental stage in which inclusiveness itself is fully embraced as a principle. Previous epochs of non-dual teaching and realization have been relatively exclusive in nature, or limited by the various cognitive conflicts of the "first tier" of the Spiral Dynamics cognitive evolutionary cycle, and it is only now, according to Wilber, as integral thinking has evolved to the point of becoming a growing cultural norm at least among the "leading edge" thinkers of our time, that this greater realization of the inclusive union between the evolving dualistic and the unchanging non-dual can be understood and embraced as the basis for spiritual growth and human development.

I think that the above is a fair summary of Wilber's views on the subject, at least as presented in this lecture, and I'd like to critique him on that basis. If I've distorted or misunderstood his views, I'd be happy to hear about it, but I've tried to avoid that and give Wilber's argument its strongest hearing. Rather than looking at merely the weakest links in his chain of thought, I'd like to address the errors in his strongest points, which I think is a more effective way to understand what is mistaken in Wilber's views of non-dualism.

The Problematic and Corrupting Relationship Between Culture and Non-Dualism

To step back from Wilber for a moment and to place his views within an overview of the relationship between non-dualism and human culture, it has to be noted that non-dualism has always been falsely associated with the particulars of the given cultural and religious norms of the time and place in which it has arisen, and thus, with the "level" of cognitive function exhibited by that culture. This is as true of ancient India as it is of modern day America. If, for the moment, we accept for the sake of discussion the general Spiral Dynamics overview of human cultural and cognitive development (an oversimplication perhaps, but good enough for the sake of comparison), it's certainly true enough that the earliest recorded forms of non-dualism show it to have developed within some rather primitive cultures dominated by mythic beliefs and polytheistic conceptions of God and nature. Consequently, these earliest non-dual teachings were associated with these myths and concepts by tradition. But it's also clear - and this is hugely important - that non-dualism itself did not come out of those myths and concepts, nor did it require them or depend upon them. Non-dualism has always "stood apart" in its views, and yet it has also not usually been at war with the culture within which it arises, but instead merely adapts itself to those cultural norms, because it is not concerned with such things.

If we look at the earliest forms of non-dualism that arose from Vedic sources, we see this primal assertion that non-dualism transcends all forms of dualism, even all cultural and religious notions of Gods and Goddesses and cosmic hierarchies and structures of development. The vedic definition of the non-dual reality is "that which never changes", and its definition of illusion is "that which changes". From this came an understanding that there are two "levels" of reality - the unchanging truth, and the world of relative, dualistic experience. Only the unchanging reality is real in the Vedic non-dual understanding, but the changing reality is accorded a "relative reality" that derives from its being founded in the unchanging reality. For this reason, the cultural norms of the specific religious societies in which the Vedic teachings developed were deemed useful and having purpose, even for those who were seeking knowledge (jnana) of the unchanging reality. They could serve that purpose if they were aligned in their particulars to the unchanging reality which was their true source, and acknowledged this reality, bowed to it, and worshiped it, even in the form of various manifest Gods, Goddesses, forms, traditions, and religious norms. And thus, from its very beginnings non-dualism adopted a stance of peaceful co-existence with the relative world and its various traditional practices and views. As Guadapada later explained, Vedic non-dualism is not in conflict with any other religious or spiritual view.

However, this is not to say that over the centuries the general culture of Vedic life didn't come to falsely associate its cultural and religious norms with non-dualism, and to imagine that they were necessary to non-dual practice and realization, or even identical to it. It's simply the nature of the dualistic mind to always make false associations and identification with non-dualism. That's what "samsara" is all about.  Even if non-dualism is entirely about the unchanging source of the changing world, those whose minds are constantly changing can't help but become subject to these conceptual associations and identifications, because that is simply what the mind does, regardless of its developmental stage.

While non-dualism may not be in conflict with the culture in which it arises, the same cannot be said for the culture itself. Human culture is a field of dualistic conflict, by its very nature, and it tries to resolve its  conflicts with "others"  by either destroying or incorporating them into itself. Usually a little of both. Vedic culture tried to incorporate non-dualism into its many dualistic views and practices, and in the process corrupted and degraded aspects of it as well, by associating them with those dualistic views and practices. Non-dualism responded to these attempts to corrupt it by withdrawing to a significant degree from the general culture, and becoming a series of esoteric "cults" that were set apart from the normative culture, surviving largely in "secret", with secret teachings, secret scriptures, secret practice, secret Gurus, and so on. Unlike the west, the eastern cultures were not greatly hostile to these esoteric cults, but even valued and encouraged them, and so a bargain was struck in which the general Hindu culture evolved with a vague understanding of non-dualism being the root or core teaching of the Vedic tradition, but it was considered an "advanced" practice and perspective that most were not ready for, and thus the general culture was dominated by dualistic teachings and practices. This allowed both sets of views to evolve on their own, influencing one another certainly, but neither dominating the other. This allowed Hinduism to grow into a widely divergent and tolerant culture with an esoteric foundation that could always be turned to for support and guidance.

Of course, even this balance was often corrupted, and the dominant dualistic culture often parted ways from its esoteric roots. The varna system, for example, degenerated into the caste system, and even the deference given to esoteric cults was corrupted into a dominance by Brahmanical priests. Thus, even as early as the Buddha's time, there was need for a rebellion against this corrupted dominance by dualistic priests and their dualistic understanding, which gave rise to Buddhist non-dualism as a rebellion against the Brahmanical religion of these dualistic Hindu priests. And then the same process began once more, with Buddhist teachings being corrupted within their own culture, and various forms of esoteric rebellion occuring there as well. As Buddhism evolved in various times and places, from India to southeast Asia to Tibet to China to Japan and finally to the West, it faced the same cycle of esoteric cultism and corrupting general culture interacting in both positive and negative ways. One can certainly point to this as an "evolving" relationship, but it doesn't mean that non-dualism itself has changed or evolved, only that its relationship with human culture has.

The insight that I think is determinative in the long history of non-dualism is that wherever it has arisen, the general culture of the time and place it has arisen in has tried to co-opt, define, and control it to some degree or another. My primary criticism of Ken Wilber's views on evolutionary spirituality is that he is doing the same thing to non-dualism that every other evolving cognitive stage of culture has done. Wilber is, to use his own terminology, a representative of "integral thought and culture", and like every other culture that has encountered and tried to incorporate (rather than destroy) non-dualism, he and his associates are trying to co-opt, define, and "own" non-dualism by associating it with his own cognitive and cultural values. So just as primitive India tried to associate vedic non-dualism with various Gods and mythic processes and beliefs, Wilber is trying to associate modern non-dualism with integral forms of thought and culture, including especially this notion of "evolutionary inclusiveness".

I won't argue against integral culture as some kind of abomination or corruption of the human spiritual tradition. Non-dualism has no conflict with integral culture, because it has no conflict with any culture or religious and spiritual view, even atheism or non-belief. But neither is non-dualism properly associated with any culture or cognitive stage of human development, including these integral stages. If integral culture is benignly oriented towards non-dualism this is a good thing and it should be encouraged and appreciated, but this does not entitle integral culture to own, define, or appropriate non-dualism for its own purposes, or to suggest that the true nature of non-dualism is one of "integral inclusiveness". The integral values system is to be applauded on a number of levels, including its potential to bring cohesive sense to the general state of cultural conflict in the world through an inclusive approach to human culture, and it's also to be applauded for highlighting and valuing the non-dual perspective, but this does not mean that it is not a corrupting influence upon non-dualism, or that non-dualism should allow itself to be defined by integral thinkers and integral culture. The views of Wilber and others in the integral movement are not genuinely "non-dual", they are integral, and the two are no more synonymous than non-dualism and Hindu polytheism.

On the other hand, it's certainly possible for integral cognitive processes to make a valuable contribution to the history and development of non-dual teaching. While non-dualism itself, its core truths and realization, does not change, its human expression certainly does. The common modern complaint that the ancient teachings of non-dualism need to be made "current" and more easily understood by the modern mind and culture has merit, and in the last century or two this process has been in full swing. The western influence here has been an important one, even on Hindu reformers like Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, and the modern Advaitic tradition of Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, and other prominent non-dual teachers who have had considerable contact with westerners.

One of the most promising developments in this regard has been the opening up of the esoteric non-dual cults and traditions to the general culture, both in the east and the west. As mentioned before, non-dualism has generally had to secret itself in small groups and cults, protecting itself from the general culture. This is true even today, regardless of the more open society that has developed in much of the world. And yet, even with this openness has come forms of hostility and a lack of support for genuine non-dualism that makes it something of a taboo subject. If the cultural process of integral thought coming to the fore means that non-dualism will find a more fertile ground in which to grow and develop without becoming corrupted in the process, this is all to the good. But it must still guard against the corruptions that come from the integral perspective itself, even if well-intentioned.

The Oxymoronic Corruption of "Integral Non-Dualism"

And what are those corruptions that integral thinking brings to the table? For one, it would be the notion of "inclusiveness" and this proposed "union between the non-dual and the dual". It is not that non-dualism is actually opposed to inclusiveness, it merely sees it as a dualistic gesture that is essentially unnecessary, in that non-dualism doesn't exclude anything to begin with. How can it? It sees nothing that can be excluded, since it sees only unity in and as everything. It need not achieve unity, because it knows unity as already the case, regardless of what those who see themselves and the world as separate entities might say or perceive. It does not see the conflicts of the dualistic world as having any basis in reality to begin with, and thus it does not try to evolve or resolve them. Those conflicts are merely the result of ignorance, to be "treated" by bringing the light of consciousness to them and curing them at their source, through the knowledge of non-dual reality. Thus, the non-dual "solution" to conflict and ignorance is merely to examine them in the light of consciousness, and see that they were merely a set of mistaken assumptions that hid the underlying unity that has always been the case. This is not an "inclusive" process that seeks to incorporate all forms of dualism, but one that actually negates these proposed solutions as being well-meaning forms of ignorance that only make the situation worse in the long run. That is why non-dualism has always tried to set itself apart from dualistic spirituality, and why when it has not done so it has usually become corrupted and degraded.

Let us take, for example, Wilber's argument about "Turiyatita" in this lecture. He is referring to the teaching in the Mandukya Upanishad that describes the three ordinary states of waking, dreaming, and sleeping, and reveals a mysterious "fourth state" called turiya beyond these three, described as the true Self that witnesses the other three states from a transcendental position of pure consciousness. The final passage of this short but extremely influential scripture also refers to "Turiyatita", which means "beyond the fourth", and this is not described or defined at all. Wilber seizes upon this notion of Turiyatita as representing a "higher" form of realization than "conventional" and "exclusive" non-dualism. He takes some serious liberties with this notion of Turiyatita, and tries to imply that it refers to a condition in which the transcendental witness is united with all that it witnesses, and which it had previously "excluded".

There's a number of problems with Wilber's use of the term "Turiyatita". First, of all, the traditionally accepted understanding of turiyatita is that it does not refer to a higher state or realization that is greater than turiya at all, but is merely a superlative modifier of turiya, that makes clear that turiya is not itself a conditional state or stage or level of consciousness, but is inherently "beyond" all these. Thus the "-tita" suffix, which simply means "beyond", is interpreted as merely a superlative that defines the nature of turiya itself as always beyond all conditional definitions. Turiya is turiyatita, therefore, always beyond any definition that might be associated with it. It isn't some "higher stage" than turiya, because there is no higher stage, there is only "beyond", which is by definition beyond all stages and levels. That is why it is not referred to as "the fifth" state of consciousness, but merely "beyond the fourth". And this alone should give one pause about Wilber's understanding of non-dualism as being composed of stages, levels, and evolutionary processes that result in greater "fullness" and inclusiveness. Turiyatita refers to a realization that is beyond any such stages or levels or conceptual definitions. It defines ultimate realization as always being "beyond", and even that definition is something it goes beyond. In essence, it is saying that no cognitive process can define or even properly describe it.

For this reason, the Advaitic tradition generally interprets even the "witness" description of turiya to be something that is gone beyond. Ramana Maharshi, for example, when asked about the witness said that the Self is beyond the witness, and that referring to the witness is merely a helpful directional pointer to the Self that is beyond all cognition and perception, and at the root of the self-sense and the awareness, but not an actual "witness" identity functioning at any stage or level. Nisargadatta likewise taught that the scriptures refer to the witness only because that is how the Self appears in relation to the manifest cosmos, it's not a description of the Self itself or its extent, it's merely the best way one can refer to it from the dualistic point of view. Advaitic teachers certainly point to the witnessing function of consciousness to be an important pointer to the Self, but they do not assert it as being the exclusive nature of the Self, as some kind of perspective that excludes anything or anyone, because it is beyond even exclusion. They refer instead to true realization as a tacit understanding that everything that we mistakenly see as dualistic and limited is in reality the infinite and unlimited Self.

And this is part of the problem with Wilber's understanding of non-dualism. In his lecture he also refers to the Mahayana Buddhist formulation of nirvana and samsara as being the same. What he "gets" from this is that the world of objects is actually real and true, not an illusion, and that these objects are "nirvana undergoing evolution". This, to be clear about it, is an objectification of nirvana, and thus a corruption and distortion of these non-dual Buddhist teachings. The Mahayana Buddhists teach that nirvana and samsara are not the same until one has realized nirvana, after which what was previously known as samsara is seen to have always been nirvanic, and never samsaric. Before that point, however, the samsaric point of view of dualism dominates one's understanding, and thus, one sees the samsaric world as objectively existing. It is only after one has seen that no such samasaric world of objects governed by dualism exists that one can also see that what one thought was objectively real was actually nirvanic in nature, and therefore not "changing". The change one saw in objects was not real, it was the product of the changing nature of one's own mind.

There's a great Mahayana Buddhist story which illustrates this, involving the famous 6th patriarch of Zen, Hui Neng, when he was a young monk. Hui Neng was an illiterate peasant who had experienced a sudden awakening upon hearing the Lotus Sutra recited aloud, and went to join the monastery of the Fifth Patriarch of Zen. Upon his arrival, the Patriarch immediately recognized that Hui Neng was in the process of awakening, but rather than openly acknowledge this he assigned him to care for the pigs on the outskirts of the monastery to protect him from the academic and spiritual corruptions of the other monks. However, one day as Hui Neng was going about his work he heard two monks nearby engaging in a classic argument about the nature of spiritual reality. They were watching the large monastery flag waving in the wind, and one monk was arguing that it was the flag that was moving, while the other argued that it was the wind that was moving. These two arguments correspond to classic viewpoints about the nature of reality, about how the transcendental and the immanent, the non-dual and the dual, are related to one another (and these classic views are not too different from Wilber's own). Hui Neng listened in the background to the arguments of these two learned monks, but finally could not hold himself back. He finally interrupted them and said, "It is neither the flag that moves, nor the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves".The two monks were silenced, and Hui Neng went about his work tending to the pigs.

This story is a great example of the genuinely transcendental point of view of realization, and how it resolves the "problem" of the apparently changing dualistic world. Rather than objectifying the world, and seeing the world as the manifestation of the transcendental "wind" of spirit, or seeing the wind and the flag, the conscious spirit and the manifest world, as being a changing process we must engage as truly existent, the genuinely awakened "jnani" sees all change as the product of his own mind, and knows that it is only his mind that is changing, not the Self or the world. It is the limited and changing nature of the mind that makes the world seem to be a place that is changing and evolving, whereas the reality of both Self and world is always beyond this. This knowledge allows the awakened individual to transcend the seeming contradiction of nirvana and samsara, not by seeing the world as an evolving form of the formless reality, but by knowing reality as eternally "beyond" not only all forms, but beyond mind itself, and thus beyond all changes. It is only the samsaric mind which changes, not reality itself.

And that is the heart of non-dualism - a perspective that transcends all perspectives, all mind, all cognition, all perception, all interpretation, all stages, all levels, and even the very sense of "including" all stages and levels. It recognizes all such things as merely "mind", and it does not acknowledge the reality of the mind's concepts, no matter how evolved. This is truly impossible to reconcile with Wilber's integral level of cognition, for the same reason that it is not reconcilable with any stage of level of cognition, however one theorizes about them or whatever system one uses to describe them. Non-dualism is "beyond". Non-dualism is not "Vedanta" nor is it "Buddhism" nor is it "Integralism". It can be approached through these, as human vehicles of communication, but none of them define it.

The advantage the traditions of Vedanta and Buddhism have over Integralism is that they are long-standing traditions with a record of many genuine realizers appearing over time and affirming these fundamental basics in such a way that they can always be differentiated from the cultural specifics in which they appear. However, even this is not enough to keep all corrupting influences at bay. Although many of these cultural forms and practices have been tested and demonstrated over time to help those who are deeply committed to non-dualism, serious practitioners of non-dualism often encounter the same problem that Hui Neng did - a normative culture which had appropriated the lingo and concepts and traditions of non-dualism, but corrupted them into cognitive forms of thought and culture which they then confuse with non-dualism itself. (It should be mentioned that at the conclusion of Hui Neng's stay at the monastery, after the Fifth Patriarch passed on to him the robes and authority of his position, Hui Neng had to run for his life to escape the violently jealous pursuit of the other monks).

So the genuine realizer, and even the serious aspirant, often has to appear as something of a rebellious outsider who disrupts the established order. In some cultures, that is valued, while in others, it is anathametized and even crucified, as the story of Jesus demonstrates. But wherever it appears there is a tendency in the normative culture to either destroy or corrupt it by making it conform to that normative culture's values, symbols, and thought processes.This is what occurred to Jesus' own non-dual teachings in the years following his crucifixion.

When "integral culture" tries to incorporate non-dualism into its system of thought, as Wilber demonstrates, there is a natural tendency to corrupt non-dualism in the effort to make it conform to that culture. That is what Wilber has done, by distorting the teachings of non-dualism in order to make them seem to be "integral" and "inclusive" in nature, and suggesting that any other way of understanding non-dualism is merely a lesser stage's exclusive definition, and thus not "true" non-dualism. And to some extent, Wilber has a point, in that other cultures have indeed tried to produce corrupted forms of non-dualism which are limited by that culture's own normative views. Wilber simply doesn't grasp that he's doing the same thing by making non-dualism conform to the normative views of the integral viewpoint.

It's not as if non-dualism is genuinely threatened by this, any more than it's genuinely threatened by Hinduism or Buddhism or Christianity. But it does mean that genuine non-dualism has to be "set apart" from even these traditional schools in order to thrive and perpetuate itself. And fortunately that is just as possible in this day and age as in any other. Non-dualism is never threatened at all, by any culture or cognitive process, even when it might appear to be. Non-dualism is beyond all changes, and knows that it is only the mind which changes and moves, not any "world". Therefore, it manages to survive largely by fading into the backdrop and appearing as no different than the normative culture to outside viewers. It would be good, perhaps, if it could be more open and explicit, but this is not always a good idea. It would be nice, perhaps, if integral culture were respectful of the needs genuine non-dualism has to remain true to itself rather than to integral thought, and perhaps as integral culture develops it will do just that, and leave aside its efforts to co-opt non-dualism and attempt to redefine it in its own image. But if not, non-dualism will survive all the same, as it always has.

That said, it's also true enough that in the dualistic world of mind, spiritual and religious culture does change and evolve, and its views on non-dualism change and evolve, and the teachings of non-dualism that can influence people to awaken from dualism are themselves dualistic and change and evolve to suit the needs of any particular time, place, and culture.It's just important to understand that non-dualism isn't about a set of ideas or religious beliefs, it's about reality itself, and the nature of reality does not change merely because human modes of cognition and culture do.  Nor does non-dualism lie on a continuum that stretches from one "extreme" running from exclusion to inclusion, nor does it have a dualistic "opposite" in the form of dualism itself.

The common use of intellectual language and concepts is inherently dualistic. Thus, for every concept one can name, there is an opposite concept. Thus, the concept of dualism has the opposite concept of non-dualism. What Wilber seems to have done is to seize upon this intellectual property of giving a name to "non-dualism" and declare, "see, that means non-dualism is only one side of a dualistic pair, which means that non-dualism is only partial and exclusive, a one-sided point of view that needs to be balanced by dualism to make it inclusive, and thus integralism is the necessary all-inclusive principle, not non-dualism itself." But really, this is just an intellectual trick that can be repeated infinitely. We could just as easily take integralism, propose its opposite, in the form of "non-integralism", and say that integralism is an exclusive, one-sided and partial truth, that it excludes non-integralism, and thus the real unity is found in, let's call it "pan-integralism", which is the true unifying path. And then take that, propose its opposite, and unify them once more. And so on, forever. We could even call this infinite regression principle the "Dialectical Unity" principle, and then oppose it once again with the "anti-dialectical disunity" principle, and propose a merger of the two. It never ends, and it never produces any real insights, other than that the whole exercise is a delusional waste of the intellect.

This is the problem with Wilber's intellectual approach to non-dualism, and trying to "balance" it with dualism. It ignores the simple fact that the very basis of non-dualism is an understanding that in reality there are no opposites to begin with. The very word "non-dualism" (advaita), is a deliberate effort to refuse to define what non-dualism actually is, for the simple reason that it is beyond all dualisms, all names, all forms, all definitions. It is not the opposite of names and forms, it is beyond them. Thus, it does not exclude names and forms, it is the very "ground" from which names and forms arise, and the substance of which they are composed, and the reality of their very being. It is simply not any name or form or substance that could possibly be defined, because it is not even in the same "ballpark". It is like defining the screen upon which a movie is shown. It has no qualities in itself, and yet the movie could not exist without the screen. It is of an entirely different order than any name or form that is seen on the screen. Or, if you take a step further back in the movie analogy, it is the white light generated by the projector that passes through the film. The film "filters" the light, allowing only some of it through, which forms the image on the screen. The images themselves are simply modifications of the light, a partial view of the light. And in a similar way, the images of life that we experience are merely limited modifications of the non-dual light of consciousness. We think they are separate objects, but they have no existence independent of the light or the screen on which the light is projected.

However, the view of non-dualism is not that of "light" as opposed to "dark". The dark only exists because of the presence of the light. The images of the world we experience only exist because of the light of consciousness, and are not in any way separate from that light. The illusion is dualism itself, the idea that these images are in any way separately existing. Of course, a difficulty arises when we take even this analogy of light and images on a screen literally, as if there really are these separate pieces and parts, one a light that projects on a screen, two the screen itself, three the images we see on the screen, and four, the observer in the theater watching the movie. In non-dualism, all of these are the same being, the same non-separate Self. This is why even the "witness" must be gone beyond. All these analogies only point towards what is beyond the analogy, the unity that cannot itself be pointed to. That unity has no opposite, and it also has no parts. It is not in need of any unifying principle to bring it back together with its excluded parts. That would only make separation seem real and require some necessary path of re-unification.

What Wilber is proposing, then, is a path of re-unification between our dualistic nature and our non-dualistic nature, as if we actually had two such natures. To him, this is the essence of the integral path. But for that very reason, it is not a genuinely non-dual path. It is simply a form of dualism that is imposing a dualistic vision upon "non-dualism", and then trying to form a dualistic unity with it. In another sense, it is a form of panentheism, in which the objective world of dualism is seen as "Divine". There is a tradition, both in Hinduism and elsewhere, for this kind of view. Sometimes it is called "qualified non-dualism". In essence, it is a view that dualistic objects are Divine in nature, and that we should therefore see the manifest universe as the "play" of the Divine, and that the universe is "playing" out the Divine's expressive character in the form of this drama of life within the dualistic worlds. It sees two principles, consciousness and energy, or purusha and prakrita, shiva and shakti, as producing the universal leela of life. And it thus advocates an "engagement" with these in order to do the unifying work of making them whole once again.

If Wilber were openly taking this approach, that would at least be good to know. Instead, he's couching his approach in the rather secular language of integral theory, and only loosely referring to such religious notions. Non-dualism, however, is critical even of this approach, reminding us that there are no actual objects that have been created, there is only the "creation" of a dualistic view and its separative vision, what we call the "ego", that has no basis in reality. When Ramana Maharshi was asked about the existence of God, he said that God was the first illusion created by the ego, and that from there, all other illusions were created, including the illusion of each separate self. So the ego loves the idea of God, because God is both the ego's original creation, and the born ego's "source", its creator, depending on what level one looks at God from. But all of that only sustains the illusion of separation that cannot be undone by any "unification" of opposites, because even that creates more opposites, and never actually achieves the unity it proposes and seeks.

The non-dual approach is to cut through all of this play of opposites, Godly or not, to the very source of the whole matter. Its fundamental insight is that there are no objects, and thus no opposites, and no requirement for a reconciliation or unification of opposites. Samsara does not unify with nirvana, it is seen that there is no samsara, only nirvana. They are not literally seen as the same, they are the same only because there is no samsara to begin with. What we presume to be an objective, samsaric reality is only our own Self, and its appearance as a field of objects is the result of our own egoic separativeness, not of "God's play". The God whose play it can be described as is also the separative ego's creation. So it is not truly God's creation, not the "Real God" that is the One true Self, it is the ego's doing, and even there, it is not a literal "creation" by the ego, it is merely an optical illusion created in the ego's separative mind, which is the only thing that is actually "changing".

Thus, trying to "include" all of God's creation under one umbrella, and "engaging" with it in some directed manner is merely repeating and reinforcing the same separative, egoic error over and over again, ad infinitum, whether one does so using the cognitive functions of primitive Gods and Goddesses, or the modern secular cognition of integral thought. It's far from the worst thing one could do, I'm sure, but it's not what genuine non-dualism is about, nor is it "greater" than non-dualism, as Wilber likes to think, because it "includes more". In reality, it is still excluding the true nature of reality, and pursuing again (and again, and again) a world of objects and thoughts that does not truly exist.

The whole point of genuine non-dualism is to bring an end to that entire cycle of illusions, even the very Godly illusion of God and his creation, through the knowledge of the transcendental Source of all of these delusions. Contrary to what the ego fears, this does not mean an exclusion of or a lack of engagement with "the world". It means a recognition that the world is not existing objectively, a recognition of the world as our very Self. It therefore means a complete lack of conflict with the world, or with any worldly teaching or pursuit, which means in essence to no longer be in conflict with oneself. It seeks to attain nothing, and it seeks to reject nothing. It knows there is only the Self. That is the teaching of non-dualism, both anciently and in such modern exponents as Ramana and Nisargadatta. It isn't ascetical or world-denying, but it isn't indulgent or world-seeking, or even unity seeking. It is the "middle way", between all those illusory paths.

What is the Future of Spirituality?

Having made clear, I hope, the distinction between non-dualism and the integral or even panentheist approach to spirituality, we can still ask ourselves what any of this implies about the future of spirituality. After all, in the relative world, life does go on, and spirituality as a human phenomena continues to change and evolve like everything else.

One thing I can probably say with some certainty is that genuine non-dualism will always remain a relatively small and rather private affair. It will likely continue to grow in interest among westerners, but I would sincerely doubt that many will fully embrace its path. The role of non-dualism in most religions, including Hinduism, is usually peripheral to the more mundane spiritual needs people come to religion and spirituality for. In Hinduism it certainly performs a significant role in holding together such a disparate collection of ethnic and religious groups who seldom really agree on much of anything, and it could certainly play a part in holding together the similarly diverse collection of people and paths that could loosely be called "new age spirituality".

It's important to realize that the initial impetus of much of what we might call "the new age" came from Hindus like Vivekananda coming to the west and preaching the unity of religion. What's not so much recognized in the west is that Vivekananda's greater role was in revitalizing Hinduism itself within India under the banner of Vedanta, and that a major part of that project was using the teachings of Advaita Vedanta to rally colonial India together by reminding them of the unity inherent in this core concept of spiritual reality, and conceiving of it as India's gift to the world. This revitalization of Hinduism around both the national concept of India and the spiritual concept of non-dual unity transformed both the spirituality of Hinduism and the politics of India, to the point where today Advaita is now both highly popular in India itself (it had previously been the province of the spiritual elites almost exclusively), and also considered its "flagship" doctrine for the world.

The future of this new spirituality in the west will likely, I think, develop along lines similar to the modern Hindu model, without the trappings of ethnic identification or any specific founding in Vedism. And I think that is a very good thing, as Hinduism has provided an excellent cultural model of a religion that is able to tolerant immense diversity within itself without resorting to exclusion or concepts of heresy to create excessive conflicts and division. By adhering to those principles of inclusion and tolerance, the new age movement can avoid the kinds of debilitating intellectual and cultural wars which, while quite popular in appealing to our visceral instincts, end up hurting and holding back the human and spiritual development of its members. The failings of much of western religion in that respect has made it not only necessary, but possible for new religious views to develop and potentially replace the old guard. However, it's important to realize that even the principles of inclusion and tolerance are not original to the integral movement, they have existed for a very long time and been proven not just in our culture, but in many foreign cultures which are much more "primitive" than our own in the cognitive sense.

The new age spiritual movement is itself an evolutionary response to the crisis in religion and politics that our modern era has engendered. In evolutionary biology, it has been observed that a species under stress will actually trigger mechanisms which encourage a greater degree of genetic mutation, in order to produce a wider than normal variety of organisms, because evolution itself favors the ability to spread a wide net in order to come up with sufficient diversity to ensure that at least some of its progeny will prove capable of survival under difficult conditions. And that is what is happening in the world today, not just in the new age movement, but in traditional religion as well. All kinds of spiritual "mutations" are being produced at a rapid pace, and while we can't tell which ones will survive and prosper, we can be fairly certain that those which do will be fairly different from the past, or we wouldn't be seeing all this diversity in the first place.

That doesn't mean we can predict what will survive and prosper in advance, or that we can "engineer" a religion which will do so, based on some analytical process of pre-figuring the evolutionary needs of the time. Books and theory can only take us so far, the chaotic world of human affairs seldom conforms to our theories and expectations, and nothing is less surprising than being surprised by what actually occurs. If Ken Wilber's integral movement thinks it can outsmart evolution and design a spiritual movement that will outcompete what nature spontaneously throws out on its own, I think he is going to be sadly disappointed. No amount of marketing prowess is going to overcome evolutionary pressures themselves.

On the other hand, if Wilber tosses such vain aspirations aside, and simply rejoices in the sheer spectacle of seeing so much spirituality being spontaneously generated without anyone's actually trying to design it, he will find the future of spirituality quite healthy and prosperous. It's not terribly likely that Wilber's own version of things will emerge victorious in the years to come, or even be the defining philosophical basis for the "integral stage" of human development, if that is what we want to call it, but this hardly matters, I think. None of that is necessary or even important, even to evolutionary spirituality. What is important is that enough diversity exists that healthy forms of spirituality will thrive and prosper even under difficult circumstances such as these.

We of course have to remember that most of the world is indifferent to new age religion and spirituality, and is strongly committed to the traditional paths of religion. Yet even within those paths, much innovation and mutation is occurring. Over three billion people belong to the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths, and that is likely to grow and not diminish. The advent of what Wilber calls the integral stage of development is not likely to change those numbers. Most likely, we will simply see more "liberal" and "integral" forms of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism develop. There is no inherent contradiction between the cognitive processes that Wilber calls "integral" and the religious traditions of most of the world. They are already much more complex than many give them credit for, and have accommodated many levels of cognitive thought and reasoning for many centuries. They can certainly accommodate and adapt to higher levels in their own way. Likewise, even fundamentalism will likely persist and grow in the future, since an atmosphere of growing tolerance also breeds the counter-reaction of intolerance. That's how the dualistic world works, unfortunately for those who dream of utopia.

Will non-dualism find this future world a more benign place in which to thrive? Perhaps. One would certainly expect so, but one also has to be aware of the ways in which an overly friendly environment can be more corrupting than a hostile one. The embrace of non-dualism by many in the west has actually had a corrupting influence upon it in many respects, as those who have embraced it have often done more to change non-dualism than they have allowed non-dualism to change them. Wilber is himself a case in point. The embrace of non-dualism by Wilber and his integral institute has been an uneasy one, in which the understanding of non-dualism has often been corrupted in order to make it consistent with Wilber's own philosophy and aims. The same is true of many western devotees of non-dual eastern teachers, of course. And the same is even true in India itself, even within the traditional paths of Advaita, and always has been. Non-dualism has always been corrupted to some degree by whatever mainstream or even esoteric influences it has been surrounded by. That too is just the way of the world, and can't be helped.

What keeps non-dualism alive and thriving is the dedication of those who truly embrace it and realize it - those who keep "going beyond". That is the key to non-dual practice, not inclusion, but always going beyond. Every limit must be transcended, every concept must be abandoned. The heart of non-dualism never stops, never sleeps, never settles for any attainment or achievement, but always beats the same drum of "beyond, beyond, beyond..."


Glenn said...

At least 3 times in this post you have mentioned non-dualism as "standing apart".
I understand that from the POV of the ajnani this would be an accurate perception, but it also seems to be a bit contradictory. Can you explain or elaborate?

Broken Yogi said...

When I refer to non-dualism as being "set apart" I'm referring to the intellectual aspects of non-dualism as a verbally expressed set of ideas, and as a cultural movement within human society. It is set apart from dualistic views and culture because it transcends these from the getgo. Non-dualism itself doesn't set itself apart, because it sees nothing that is ever apart to begin with. And that's what sets it apart.